In the wake of a swarming-rat scandal that has led to the closure of 13 Yum Brands restaurants in New York City, the lead editorial in today's New York Post suggests the city's Health Department should stop pestering people about their risky habits and get "back to basics." The Greenwich Village KFC/Taco Bell where passers-by noticed and TV cameras recorded two dozen or so rats frollicking around the tables and chairs on February 23 had passed inspection the day before. The incident, says the Post, brings to mind the Health Department's not-so-distant history of corruption:
In 1988, one inspector's reputation for demanding bribes in exchange for clean bills of health became so notorious he was called "Hungry Joe."
His colleague, who was also on the take, once told a new inspector not to fail a paying restaurant unless "he saw rats [mating] in the cream cheese."
In 1989, fully 65 percent of the department's restaurant inspectors—46 out of 70—pleaded guilty to, or were convicted of, extortion.
In this case (as the Post notes), there's no evidence bribery was involved; incompetence and/or negligence seem like adequate explanations. Many people will see the restaurant rats as a striking reminder of the need for city health inspections, and the Post is right that the rationale for government involvement in this area, where the risks may be hidden from sight (when they're not being broadcast on TV), is stronger than the argument for banning trans fats or smoking, both of which are known, avoidable risks.
Yet the background to this case casts doubt, to put it kindly, on the wisdom of trusting the government to inspect restaurants. Yum Brands, which includes Pizza Hut as well as KFC and Taco Bell, has taken a major P.R. hit as a result of these rats—which came to light, it is worth remembering, no thanks to the government. The company has shut down all the outlets run by the franchisee that owns the Greenwich Village restaurant, and it will have a hard time winning back customers who have heard about the infestation or seen the footage. That is as it should be.
Restaurants clearly have a strong interest in protecting their reputations against this sort of damage. In the absence of government-run "inspections," they might be willing to pay an independent, private organization to perform this function. How is this different from bribing a city health inspector for a passing grade? To stay in business, a private inspection service would have to guard its reputation for thoroughness and integrity, just as competing kashrut supervision organizations have to maintain the trust of consumers who observe Jewish dietary laws if they want to keep getting paid for inspections. Some restaurants might rely on internal procedures instead. But all would have to worry about keeping customers coming back (and, in extreme cases, avoiding lawsuits).
Obviously, this solution is not perfect: Although Yum Brands and its franchisee, ADF Companies, both had strong incentives to avoid being associated with those images of swarming rats, they failed to maintain adequate standards and controls. Now they are paying the price. But what do the city's health inspections add to the equation, aside from false reassurance?